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Movie Review: Diplomacy

MV5BMTg1NDIzNTQ5N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjY2MTU2MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_“Is Paris burning?” Volker Schlöndorff’s fictionalized Diplomacy, starring Niels Arestrup as Nazi general Dietrich von Choltitz and André Dussollier as Swedish consul Raoul Nordling and opening today at New York City’s Film Forum (and at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles on November 7), responds to Adolf Hitler’s infamous question of his Nazi commander with surprisingly provocative answers.

The French and German-language movie (with English subtitles) opens with Beethoven’s 7th symphony amid black and white footage of Warsaw’s destruction by Germany in the summer of 1944. An old man walks the streets of Paris in the dark, suspicious of everything around him, which ought to tell the audience something important about him. Mysterious narration explains to the audience that “we were all going to die, Europe was consumed by war. The Germans planned to destroy, to raze, everything. Especially Paris.” A flame appears out of nowhere as the camera pans up past a Nazi soldier to a figure standing on a balcony overlooking Paris. He is the Nazi general, smoking a cigarette, indicating in one sweep that tonight he holds the power to ignite Paris, Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower and all.

After an introduction to the general and his pills, underlings and surroundings, the German answers his subordinate’s question, “what are you going to do?” with the profession of faith that led to Hitler’s Germany: “My duty.”

The general, who faces imminently approaching Allied troops, has total faith in the German state, volk and plan. After the city’s bridges, rigged with explosives, are decimated, the river Seine will be dammed and flood the city, and ruin the Louvre and the Cathedral of Notre Dame. An engineer’s description of the impending destruction goes on, the score swells, a clock ticks on a mantle and slowly, imperceptibly, the camera closes in on a mirror, where faintly one can make out the face and terrified, alert eyes of the old man.

Still just after four in the morning, an all-night confrontation between the two men unfolds at the Nazi hotel suite on Rue de Rivoli. Whether the Nazi has any independent thought and judgment and is able to see reality for what it is and whether the Swede will sanction the Nazi in some way will be resolved and this reconfiguration of history is cinematic in Volker Schlöndorff‘s hands.

The drama is deft and tightly drawn yet realistic. The interplay, as the men compare and contrast lives and values and negotiate down to the last moment as the U.S. Army tanks roll in, is involving. It’s not easy to make a movie about a moment in history as well known as this and manage to create suspense but Schlöndorff pulls it off with shadows, light and mostly the performances in faces of characters that must choose between life and death, their own and the lives of others, on a deadline that grants no mercy and demands the utmost skill. Not every line and scene rings true in Diplomacy. But the director who adapted the absurdist, surrealistic The Tin Drum focuses on what would matter most to each individual in such a negotiation. Diplomacy depicts a taut, thoughtful and extremely important encounter, sparing the West its treasures, as it might have been.

 

Movie & DVD Review: The Hurt Locker

MV5BNzEwNzQ1NjczM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTk3MTE1Mg@@._V1_SX214_AL_‘War is a drug’ is the tagline for Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008), not an especially thought-provoking or original variation on the notion that war is hell.

But war is an intoxicating hell by most accounts and this should be re-dramatized often as the West is chronically plunged, or plundered, as the case may be, into a state of perpetual war. This perceptually-driven picture begins with a slow-motion explosion in the opening scene, which demonstrates the utter futility of an American deployment in Iraq in 2004. The movie takes place in Baghdad, a city positioned to fall into Islamic fundamentalist hands 10 years after Bush’s folly.

Time is marked by the bomb squad soldiers, or sacrificial animals, by days left in rotation. A crippled cat hobbles across the street as the viewer experiences immersion in a sensory perceptual experience of the American soldier deployed in Iraq. The viewer’s sense is a feeling of what it’s like to be in a constant state of half-paralysis for a mission to die for the sake of helping others. It is a feeling, however, not an examination of a failed war which advanced enemy aims in the aftermath of the 2001 Islamist act of war on America.

The Hurt Locker is agnostic about the long war in Iraq, which sacrificed thousands of Americans and created further chaos and confusion in the Middle East. The movie shows what it looks and feels like to lock and unlock pain in a state of chronic non-combat with unbearable tension. By slowly following the soldier’s aimless thoughts and steps, complete with tedium, the movie reduces the U.S. soldier’s deployment in today’s politically correct field operations to its mental essence: crazymaking.

For instance, the first scenes culminate in a sniper attack in more slow motion. Picture spent shells, flies on eyelashes, flies on faces and Iraqi desert dust devils. After the attack subsides, soldier Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) asks soldier Will (Jeremy Renner), upon finding a photograph of his son: “You married?”

Stoic Will has an answer and it defines the film’s thesis that blood is the only thing worth fighting for. “Well, you know, I had a girlfriend,” he tells soldier Sanborn. “She got pregnant. So we got married. Then we got divorced. But she still lives with me and she says we’re still together, so I don’t know. What does that make her? I don’t know.” Confusion and chaos on the outside stir confusion and chaos on the inside. Soon, Sanborn, who confesses that he’s not ready to have a child, bonds with Will. After they tussle, Sanborn asks Will if he thinks he’s ready to put on the bomb suit. A softer soldier (Brian Geraghty) is part of the team, making it three. The dynamic is set.

Then, it’s 16 days later in their rotation, so The Hurt Locker for its reputation of realism really only offers a selective re-creation of grave and immediate dangers faced by the bomb squad. After more bonding, specifically Will with an Arab boy, and long bits in the blinding sun, Will comes upon a gruesome scene which unlocks, or locks, more pain, an attack in Baghdad’s so-called green zone – a designated safety area for Westerners – erupts. Affected Will takes the trio on a rogue mission, raising stakes and pitting childless Sanborn against alpha family man Will.

Who’s a better soldier, who’s a better man? Does it matter? Is any value at stake? Is everyone doomed to chaos, confusion and death?

“I don’t even have a son,” submits soldier Sanborn, after an Islamic suicide bomber claiming he wants the bomb disabled because he really wants to live – because he has four children – is resolved. A second later, upon seeing a kite flying, Sanborn stutters, “I guess I don’t think about it…I don’t know why.” He finally asks Will: “Do you know why?” Will answers: “No, I don’t.” This uncertainty contaminates Will, who returns from his rotation to the U.S. alive but not necessarily living. Standing in an empty grocery store, surrounded by choices of cereal, he indiscriminately chooses a box and throws it into the grocery basket. Then, he’s cleaning gutters. He doesn’t know why he has a kid, he doesn’t know why he risks leaving the kid fatherless. The Hurt Locker‘s clock resets with a lone bomb tech walking down an Arab street. The death cycle repeats in slow, dusty neverending beige.

Is The Hurt Locker a lesson in bloodlust? Does war make man lust for blood or does man make war into bloodlust? In few words (for clarity, watch with the subtitles on) and a spate of slow-moving pictures of man mired in the inaction and indecision of today’s mindless war, which means waiting to be blown apart for the sake of nothing, The Hurt Locker approximates the approximated, unending war of our times.

DVD Notes

Bigelow says on the extras that she hopes to replicate the chaos of war, though it’s worth noting that the picture’s close-ups and slow-motion scenes – crew refer to ninja cameras – do not really re-create reality as much as slow it down selectively to make the engagements and non-engagements seem hyper-realistic. It’s a 12 minute feature, so if you experienced the war in Iraq or want to see and study The Hurt Locker, don’t expect much from the bonus bits. An audio commentary in which Bigelow comes across as somewhat pretentious at least does disclose that the film’s military scenes are not accurate. The movie won the Oscar for 2008’s Best Picture.

Movie Review: St. Vincent

StVincentposterComedians Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy shine in writer and director Theodore Melfi’s sentimental Catholic character drama, St. Vincent, which touts itself as an ode to sainthood but redefines what it means.

Everyone’s broke in this contrived, enjoyable movie, from Murray’s alcoholic to McCarthy’s divorced mom. Her kid, named Oliver and well played by Jaeden Lieberher, puts up with his hospital worker mother’s deficiencies, which include hiring Murray’s drunken war veteran Vincent to babysit. Vincent takes Oliver into the seedy world he’s inhabited since his life went bad, which, judging by the entrenched habits, was long ago. That he also teaches the kid is the movie’s hook and it’s obvious, pat and abbreviated but it plays into a sweeping scene that cashes in humor and pathos like Little Miss Sunshine meets Mr. Holland’s Opus.

St. Vincent, finding the good in a hard-knock life and the virtuous in man, is powered by charming performances based on solid characterizations and a script that seeks to deliver us from cynicism. With nerdy, intelligent Oliver enrolled in one of those city Catholic schools where kids are sent in lieu of reformatory school, and with the adults in his life falling apart around him, the stage is set for a confluence of redemption and contrition within a distinctly Catholic context. This allows for lots of liberties taken with icons, rituals and religious myths. A pregnant Russian prostitute (Naomi Watts, overdoing it a tad), a loan shark (Terrence Howard) and a vacant patient in a nursing home enhance what adds up to an almost palliative effect.

Bill Murray’s drunk keeps the action alive and moving, through a good script and heartfelt performance in a characterization that measures the value of a single life. He keeps telling everyone who wants something from him that they do not know him, not really, which is the cynic’s cry for help to heard, seen, known and loved. A scene in which he dances to a tune by Jefferson Airplane illustrates the concealment, unmasked only when he’s intoxicated. The mutual interest money exchanged between McCarthy’s angry, wronged woman and Murray’s embittered, old man climaxes in a conflict that tests everyone’s character to the max.

The film’s theme that life is like a maze and one’s purpose is to pursue one’s values with kindness, not contempt, in the navigational choices largely works well. This is due to Catholic school-educated Bill Murray’s strengths in playing himself, again, as he’s done since the beginning of his career. His Vincent is as goofy and crude as his characters in Meatballs, Stripes and Ghostbusters and not better or worse, so don’t look for profound lessons beyond what’s here.

What’s here is good and decent and exceedingly well done, with warm and rewarding scenes and touches. Oliver grows and learns from the bitter old drunkard to “speak up and be bold!” So does everyone else, though not beyond their capacity to change. The humor is seeded in the conflict and irony of trying to invoke, instill and inspire the good, and St. Vincent is often funny in service of being human. That the better type of man—a saint by this movie’s terminology—strives to be a trader is not lost on the way. The most rewarding, and also most moving, part of the picture is when life’s mess is sorted, cleaned, detoxified and put in perspective, accentuating the positive, as happens sometimes in real life. Melfi figured out how to put Murray’s depressed, grumpy clown act in a story that dramatizes discovering the good in somebody that seems too damaged to love.

Movie Review: The Liberator

TheLiberatorPosterThe Liberator‘s tag line asks the audience: What kind of man would defy an empire? The answer, with charismatic Édgar Ramírez (Carlos, Zero Dark Thirty) as South American hero Simón Bolívar, is elusive yet intriguing. Bolívar fought Spain over and over in South America and it’s true that, in military campaigns that covered twice the territory of Alexander the Great, his army never conquered; it liberated. But this epic foreign war movie (in Spanish with English subtitles, opening in selected theaters on Friday) covers too much ground to dramatize the essence of this extraordinary man.

The subject is no less worthy of understanding. Bolívar’s family came from Spain’s Basque and Canary Islands regions, he was an aristocrat born in Caracas, Venezuela to a family fortune on vast property powered by slave labor, yet he was both raised by a black woman who loved him and he was intellectually liberated by a maestro who taught Bolívar radical, freethinking ideals. Cast out by the Spanish state and sent into the country with nothing, he nevertheless triumphed, connecting with natives, remaking himself and, stitching mutual interests into a cause based on French and American revolutionary ideas, instilling South American peoples with fervor for independence. Bolívar’s has the potential to be an amazing story and, in The Liberator, directed by Alberto Arvelo with a screenplay by Timothy J. Sexton, it is only partially depicted and often too quickly, too densely or aimlessly and with practically no exposition. Even the most studied Bolívar scholars may be bewildered by this sprawling motion picture.

That what is on screen – a widower who was passionate about “the rights of the individual” – has been largely untold is surprising. Hollywood should be all over this type of riches to rags story, though Bolívar, who is claimed by dictators such as Venezuela’s Chavez, admired Jefferson, eventually opposed slavery and does not fit the archetype of the leftist Latin American usually favored by studio executives. At least The Liberator, which uses too many characters to try too hard to do too much, makes the audience want to know more about this larger than life hero. There are good lines, such as when his mentor admonishes Bolívar during a low point in Paris, telling his once-promising student turned playboy: “You used to be rich [and] now all you have is money.”

There are also good scenes, such as when Irish troops consider whether to join the cause and on the cusp of a climactic river battle in which Bolívar persuades army troops by using reason and self-interest to face superior Spanish troops. The movie spreads itself too thin and it feels like Arvelo left a lot of scenes out, leaving gaps that render Ramírez’s performance disjointed when the whole picture needs to come into view. To its definite credit, The Liberator attempts to tell a story that ought to be told.

The picture also features Maria Valverde as Maria Teresa del Toro, Danny Huston as Martin Torkington, Imanol Arias as Monteverde, Gary Lewis as Colonel Rooke, Erich Wildpret as Antonio José de Sucre, Iwan Rheon as Lt. Daniel O’Leary and Andres Gertrudix as Prince Ferdinand.

Movie Review: Life’s a Breeze

Lifes_a_Breeze_1(1)A small, independent Irish movie about earning one’s rewards in life opens this weekend.

Life’s a Breeze is the story of a family searching for what the matriarch (Finnoula Flanagan) insists is a lost fortune stuffed inside an old mattress. The adult kids and their kids go searching through the garbage dumps, back alleys and streets of Dublin looking for the old woman’s mattress after they toss it out in an attempt to give her a surprise home makeover. What happens – as sibling rivalry, mother’s approval, money, aging and the prosspect of dying come into play – feeds the film’s theme, a twist on the Spanish proverb about taking what you want and paying for it. This is an unusual and poignant slice of life in Ireland.

It could happen anywhere and, though the poverty of Ireland’s welfare state permeates the movie’s downtrodden characters, who are all dependent upon the government in some way, Life’s a Breeze expresses a universal idea about family. The mother sees her children, most of whom are cruel, callous and hard to like (this is what being on the dole reduces men to), for who they are as the hunt for the money-filled mattress goes on. She also sees herself, the best and the worst, for who she is. The kids and theirs are in and out of her home, as the press gets wind of the missing mattress and all of Dublin wants to cash in on the unearned, and mother begins to accept that the parasites live through the host she chose to become.

This realization is not taken lightly and Irish life is bleak, gray and depressing as seen here, with pockets of black family humor as the proverbial pot of gold glimmers from the end of a government recycling center. But it is not dim at the core. As the mother watches her struggling kids come and go, and feels herself growing older with all that this implies, she becomes aware that her own limitations, reservations and choices can be seeded to profit the youth who is her grandchild: a quiet, intelligent girl named Emma (Kelly Thornton). This willful child is the soul of the story. She sees her family, its poverty – its fundamental impoverishment and renunciation of the prospect of self-enrichment – and the enveloping darkness and she chooses to watch, observe and think about the fountainhead of the unseen wealth instead. The relationship between old and young here is preciously well developed, from the hat the grandmother makes for the girl to the fact that the girl chooses to wear it to spare her grandmother’s feelings and everything this bond means.

They choose to love based on shared values, not blood, and they learn that loving one another is not easy. The girl goes hungry and a scene of Emma eating a slice of bread is one of the most powerful cinematic moments (and too many in today’s entitlement states may be able to relate to it). Emma stands up to Nan, as the deteriorating grandmother is known, too, and is hurt by the old battleaxe. Yet the child represents the true spirit of endurance, enterprise and authentic enrichment and it’s her relationship to reality – not the grating and irritating if dimensional adults – one should watch to feel the freshness of Life’s a Breeze, which is best experienced with granny and the grandkids.

Of course, these days life is not breezy at all. This is what drives the movie’s theme that effort and, above all, the willingness to be bold and radical in thought and action, pulls you through. It comes slowly, thoughtfully, in a scene with Emma cashing in on what she’s earned while looking over a city on the verge of ruin – and choosing to never let her newly discovered treasure go.